For a station with rock built right into its name, KROQ has branched out of late. Never was that more apparent than this weekend at their 26th annual holiday bash, Almost Acoustic Christmas, which boasted a lineup full of buzzy, rising acts and no outsize headliner. A station founded on gritty guitars showed its shift toward pop and programmed beats with electronic acts such as Halsey and Disclosure, but they still brought in one of rock’s finest, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, for Night Two. While some found this year’s lineup somewhat anemic, several standout performances—and one actual acoustic set!—made the show anything but ordinary.
In keeping with traditional format, English newcomers the Struts kicked off the louder of the two nights with arena rock anthems worthy of the legendary Forum. Not to be outdone, fellow U.K. rockers Foals brought melody, muscle, and a formidable beard game to the revolving stage. One of Saturday’s standout performances came courtesy of pop-meets-reggae-meets-hip-hop duo Twenty One Pilots. The “Stressed Out” pair had a huge year thanks in part to their infectiously catchy hits and commanding stage presence, put on full display Saturday with vocalist Tyler Joseph practically parkouring across the stage as well as into the crowd.
Backstage before his set, AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno, an Acoustic Christmas vet, hinted about bringing in a surprise bassist. Surprise: it was Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan, who joined Bruno for his massive hit “Sail.” The performance also included a tribute to the late Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland.
Rockstar behavior was on full display with Cage the Elephant, led by charismatic frontman Matthew Schultz, whose strut and swagger moved more like Jagger than any marooned pop star. Cage the Elephant may have won Saturday night, teasing new songs and just barely edging out Twenty One Pilots for most physical performance of the day.
Other high points include Bastille, whose soaring melodies on hits such as “Flaws,” “Pompeii,” and the Twin Peaks-inspired “Laura Palmer” were made even easier on the ear by Dan Smith’s pitch-perfect vocals. KROQ statesmen Weezer brought the same level of energy and nostalgia to the stage as they did last year but with the added bonus of their new single “Do You Wanna Get High?” They closed their set with crowd favorite “Buddy Holly,” complete with a massive confetti burst (surely to the chagrin of the Forum custodial staff). Although half the stadium had already made its exit, Disclosure kept the party going with a DJ set to finish out the evening.
Change was certainly in the air Sunday night. Generally the more alternative evening, Night Two saw “Hold Back the River” singer-songwriter James Bay making a strong KROQ debut along with “Budapest” singer George Ezra. Elle King and Of Monsters and Men’s Nanna Bryndi Hilmarsdottir were the night’s only females on hand—an issue concertgoers could be overheard discussing—but both acts delivered powerful performances. Perhaps the biggest change came from Soundgarden/Audioslave lead singer Chris Cornell, who played—gasp!—completely acoustic. Backed by nothing more than a guitar and a cellist, Cornell posted up on a stool and wowed with a masterful display of songwriting prowess and vocal acumen on tracks from his prolific songbook including “Black Hole Sun,” “Like a Stone,” and heart-wrenching covers of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Ending the evening with aplomb was KROQ darlings Fall Out Boy, who couldn’t let Weezer have all the fun. Their set included a massive balloon drop, and an elated crowd lapped it up. Other notable Sunday acts included Cold War Kids and the always entertaining Panic! At the Disco, whose rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” had the whole arena in harmony heaven.
Overall, the number of genre-bending up-and-comers was a bit surprising and, frankly, risky. But to chide KROQ for going light on the ROQ is to forget that the station has always tried to remain cutting-edge, and that’s what has made it iconic (imagine what Morrissey fans had to say when the station began to play Nirvana, someone said backstage).
That willingness to evolve has kept KROQ from fading. The Forum held Almost Acoustic Christmas’ largest crowd and the greatest number of bands since the event began in 1989, which is especially good for an event that benefits local charities Para Los Niños and the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center.
Of course, while it would’ve been fun to see a big name splashed across the marquis—we noticed a convenient gap in the Foo Fighters tour schedule—this year’s lineup held its own, bringing a festive energy that couldn’t be ignored, stunning acoustic moments, and earworms we’ll have in our heads till the new year.
Highlight: No one fell off the stage this year!
Lowlight: More dudes than you can shake a…well, you get the idea.
All photographs by Sonya Singh